Oddsmakers aren’t looking too favorably on the Panthers—only three teams are bigger underdogs. But anything can happen in this heated “I-85 Rivalry” when records typically get thrown out the window.
Throwing out the records would be a great start for Carolina in drawing up a game plan. The Panthers haven’t excelled in their brutal early schedule, winning just one of three games. The Falcons, however, are perfect on the season and have even won two road games.
If the Panthers want to start climbing out of an early two-game deficit in the NFC South, winning on Sunday is a necessity.
Here’s how Carolina should draw up a game plan for Atlanta.
Control the ball, Cam Newton
Cam Newton’s thrown five interceptions and lost a fumble through three games this year. Only Michael Vick and Matt Cassel have turned the ball over more, and three of Cassel’s seven turnovers (43 percent) came at the hands of a Week 1 beating from the Falcons.
Newton really has to keep control of the ball all day in Atlanta. That’s going to be no easy task, as the Falcons lead the NFL in turnover margin.
Atlanta’s plus-10 turnover margin leads the league by a huge margin, and the Falcons have forced 11 turnovers in all (seven interceptions and four fumbles). Mike Nolan’s aggressive Atlanta defense is active and angry and quite adept at forcing opponents make mistakes.
And Newton’s made his fair share of mistakes in his two career games against Atlanta.
When Carolina traveled to Atlanta in Week 6 last season, Newton went 21-of-35 for 237 yards and threw three interceptions. At home in Week 14, he went 19-of-39 for 276 yards and had two touchdowns and two picks. Newton turned the ball over to Atlanta last year five times, more than he did against any other team.
To make matters worse, Atlanta’s defense is better this year at forcing turnovers.
Looking at what the Giants did to Newton, the New York defense knew that Newton was going to throw the ball—especially since Carolina was down by 19 points in the fourth quarter and lined up in a five-wide set.
At the snap, New York rushed four and dropped all three linebackers into coverage in the middle of the defense. The defense backs all covered deep.
Instead of making a play with his feet (this was definitely the time to do that), Newton tried to force the ball into double coverage and was picked off.
This wasn’t a terribly tricky defensive ploy by the Giants. And Atlanta has gotten very good at confusing opposing quarterbacks. If Newton can’t see and adjust to plain defensive schemes like the Giants employ, he could really flounder against Atlanta.
Rush to Victory
Contrary to league statistics—Carolina ranks 19th currently with 289 yards rushing—the Panthers have one of the best rushing attacks in the NFL. It’s been hampered a bit by the absence of Jonathan Stewart in two of Carolina’s three games and by poor blocking up front, but the talent is still there and it’s great.
Atlanta ranked in the top 10 in rushing defense for most of the season last year, but has fallen off in 2012, allowing five yards per attempt through three games (only Cincinnati is worse).
The tandem of DeAngelo Williams and Mike Tolbert (Stewart is questionable and would be a welcomed addition Sunday), along with Newton, could wreak havoc in Atlanta. They’ve done it before against the Falcons.
Newton averaged almost six yards a carry last year against Atlanta and scored a touchdown. Williams added a touchdown last year and averaged 12.4 yards per carry in their Week 14 matchup.
Newton really did damage against the Saints using a read-option attack in Week 2. That same style could be even more effective against an aggressive Falcons defense if Newton can get to the outside with a back flanking him.
Pressure isn’t Good Enough
Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan is an astounding 77-of-107 (72 percent completion rate) this season, and he boasts a 114.0 quarterback rating. No one in the NFL has higher numbers.
According to Pro Football Focus, Ryan ranks sixth in the league among passers with more than 100 dropbacks in completion percentage. When it comes to the Pro Football Focus accuracy percentage—a tool that focuses on all aimed passes a quarterback completes and counts drops as completions—Ryan is third in the league with a 78.3 percent accuracy rate.
What's the biggest key to a Carolina victory in Atlanta?
What this means is that putting pressure on Ryan isn’t good enough; he can handle pressure extremely well. If Carolina can get pass-rushers into Ryan’s face, they must bring him down. The only way to keep Ryan from torching secondaries this year is to sack him.
The problem is, Atlanta’s offensive line is doing a superb job of keeping Ryan upright, allowing him to be sacked only four times.
Ryan was sacked twice in San Diego last week, and both men came from the right side of Atlanta’s offensive line. That’s good news for Dwan Edwards and Greg Hardy, who could have a shot at making some noise Sunday.
Edwards leads the Panthers with 3.5 sacks and ranks fourth in the league in pass-rush productivity, according to Pro Football Focus. Hardy hasn’t registered a sack yet, but he has been active in pressuring opposing quarterbacks. Hardy ranks 11th in pass-rush productivity with nine hurries and one hit.
Hardy and Edwards have been the two most disruptive forces on Carolina’s defensive line, and the Falcons have been susceptible from their side.
But remember, the pass-rush duo must bring Ryan down—hurries and hits aren’t good enough.